In the Hunt

March 27, 2016

The blog is posting a few hours later than usual this week because I’m just back from dinner at my mother-in-law’s after flying in from Houston: ham, peas, scalloped potatoes. It was cooked up special by the kitchen, and the place was buzzing with relatives of other residents visiting for the Easter weekend. Food becomes central at a lot of holiday meals, but exploring that with the seriousness it calls for is just not my mood today. I’m thinking much more about the three (count ‘em, three) Easter Egg hunts I participated in this year with my granddaughter.

One of the three was pretty much like the ones I knew as a boy. You know the drill: cheap dye kit from the grocery, and the pre-Easter party of boiling a dozen eggs then decorating them with “the Magic Crayon”. Psst. Here’s a dirty little secret: Any crayon will keep the dye from penetrating the eggshell. I hope I’m not spoiling any little toddler’s Easter by spilling the beans about the fact that there’s nothing really magic about the crayon that comes in your Easter egg dye kit.

So then on Easter morning the Easter bunny hides the eggs you dyed around your house. If you live in Michigan, the Easter bunny is not so likely to hide them in the back yard, which is what she did for my granddaughter down in Texas. Easter bunnies are not stupid. You get up, your parents hand you a basket, and you run around excitedly finding all those eggs “left” by the Easter bunny. Even though they look rather a lot like the eggs you decorated the day before. Don’t worry yourself over that detail. The Easter bunny leaves a few surprises, too, like a chocolate bunny. The ears are supposedly extra-special tasty. Trust a food ethicist on that one.

But this Easter weekend we started with the school Easter egg hunt at my Granddaughter’s classroom on Thursday. That one yielded about a dozen plastic eggs, each with a candy treat inside. So in addition to the treats that the Easter bunny left, we are now approaching a haul comparable to that of a fair to middlin’ Halloween. Of course it was actually a lot more than a fair to middlin’ Halloween, because there was also the Saturday morning Easter egg hunt for the whole neighborhood. And I’m telling you, you’ve never seen so many $400 BOBs assembled in one place.

Now I know it’s not exactly a food item, but I’m compelled to launch a brief tangent here for the clueless reader (hey you know who I’m talking about) who has absolutely no idea what a BOB is. In point of fact, I have no idea why it’s called a BOB. Maybe it’s a trade name, but for all I would be able to attest, it’s some kind of secret code password that only millennials understand. At any rate, be assured that we’re definitely not referring to the $169 version of the large wheeled jogging stroller that you can purchase down at the Target store. No. This baby has inflatable tires and impact resistant lightweight cast aluminum wheels. And what’s more, they flex. That’s what does the trick if you are have been born (as my granddaughter has) since the start of the current decade.

So it was BOB round-up at the Saturday Easter egg hunt in The Heights. Everyone was there and they lined up against that roped-off playground littered with multi-colored plastic Easter eggs just like a bunch of land-hungry pioneers itching for the opening of Indian Territory to settler-colonials back in 1899. You may recall the scene from Cimarron, which won an Oscar back in 1931. That’s the one with Irene Dunne, though I think what I’m envisioning was from the remake in 1960 with Glenn Ford. At any rate, those toddlers-through-preteens had a gleam in their eyes not at all unlike that of homesteaders awaiting the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush. They could just see those eggs out there littering the lawn, and they knew that each one was going to be stuffed with some kind of treat ranging from the relatively disappointing Kraft caramel to the prize-winning Baby Ruth.

I’m not sure that any of this stuff should really be called food, though like beer, it is not wholly without nutritive value. The deviled eggs we had at my mother-in-law’s were better.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

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Chin Warmers

Adzuki beans and arepas make for a pretty good cold weather supper about this time of year. I know we are supposed to be in the midst of Earth shattering changes that will drive all of us into our backyards during late March to grill out before the seriously hot weather sets in. In total honest to God facticity I did actually see some smoke wafting above my backyard fence this week when one of my neighbors took it upon himself to trot outside around six pm and fire up the charcoal. After all we did just endure the “spring ahead” and it’s not all that dark around six pm, so why not trot yourself outside? Especially when due to the Earth shattering changes we are enduring it is actually close to 60° out there. That’s what I’d like to know. I did get a lecture the other day from Chef Daniel Patterson about grilling your meat too long. “Cancer pills” was the phrase he used, but I’m not going to use my cosmic authority as the local expert on food ethics to pull a smug alert and tell you that you shouldn’t be outside in your backyward on a warm afternoon in the month of March checking to see if the bottom of your Weber grill has perchance rotted out over the winter. And what better way to do that, I note, than firing up some of those crumbly briquettes that are lying around in the bottom of the Kingsford bag that you bought last August. Last August was when Chef Dan’s advice about cancer pills was really more appropriate. Of course Dan also gave me a tip about grilling while he was lecturing us on the health risks of eating overly charred meats. “Turn it over every 30 seconds or so,” he said. The point being that this gives you great flavor without creating any of those heterocyclic amines (not to mention polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons).

Chef Dan used some horrifying story about holding your thumb over an open flame and noticing that although this is pretty rough on your skin, you don’t feel a thing down in the pit of your palm. I’m not really sure I follow what he was trying to say there, though it did have something to do with idea that you can’t actually cook the pit of your palm by holding your thumb over an open flame. These celebrity chefs! What will they think of next? I’m actually just going to chalk all that up to this week’s obligatory tangent, except that before moving on I’ll note that we usually just refer to heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons by the friendly names of “HCAs” and “PAHs” here in the Thornapple Blog. I don’t want any HCAs or PAHs writing lengthy outraged responses in the comments section of the blog. I already have enough trouble with robots who are posting links to Russian shopping malls or porn sites (though I will say it’s much better since we switched to the new WordPress platform). Still and all, I hope all the HCA and PAH readers out there will forgive me if I say that although we take your perspective seriously here at the Blog, we don’t expect to be inviting any of you to dinner.

And that goes especially for those Fridays in March when the temperature has dipped back into the upper twenties. Ha! On Tuesday your neighbors are grilling steaks in the backyard, but by Friday evening it’s feeling pretty chilly out in the backyard and it makes a lot more sense to be cooking up something over the stove that you can slather with the Columbia™ salsa picante that’s been sitting in your spice cabinet ever since you made your last trip to Tampa. Of course my Nana (God rest her soul) would not have known what to make of adzuki beans and arepas. In a similar vein I found myself corrupting the moral fiber of some younger colleagues the other day by suggesting we all head out for some sushi. “We didn’t eat much sushi in my family,” one said. “No kidding,” says I. “We used to scarf down tons of sushi from our TV trays when we were sitting there watching The Red Skelton Show on the little black and white television set mounted on wheels that we used to roll in on those nights when my mother was willing.” She was often willing. I think she rather liked Red Skelton.

Well, I was just kidding then like I am now. My mother may have gotten around to trying some sushi before she passed but I’m as sure that my Nana never did as I am that she never encountered an adzuki bean or an arepa. Pinto beans and cornbread, sure. Chef Dan himself kept referring to himself as a cook, too.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Chair in Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

 

Good Stories

March 13, 2016

March is still roaring a bit, though with Mid-Michigan temperatures eking into the 60s it’s a bit more like a purr. Nevertheless, you have to squint pretty hard to see the crocuses peeking out of the ground or the little spots of green that will be turning into budding leaves in the coming weeks. I suppose the real farmers are already getting busy, but it’s a dead season for the faux farmer foodies. We have little in store but waiting, so maybe it’s a good moment to explore obscure literary references in the food world.

It occurs to me that if you want to explore American food ethics at about this time in the previous century, you would probably be reading novels. Yet that doesn’t seem so much the case today. There were tons of food and farming novels published in an era that runs from about 1860 to 1960. They were, on the on the one hand, novels in a full-blown sense: plot, characters, story development, represented as fiction. On the other hand, they were a form of thinly veiled journalism. The stories being recounted were true, and the books were read with the understanding that one could learn something of significance about the events being reported from these accounts.

Of course, the names were changed. Not so much to protect the innocent, I suspect, as to ward off legal action, especially when the real-life protagonists were both well-known and well-heeled. The stories themselves were very much the stuff of food ethics: fraudulent schemes that deprived homesteaders of their land; cruel exploitation of marginalized groups being employed as seasonal labor, especially in California, where even by the 1870s large estates were dependent on the labor of dispossessed Native American tribes and Chinese immigrants; singular events of violent resistance, such as the Mussel Slough Affair. This last was the result of an extended dispute over land titles between settlers and the Southern Pacific Railroad. It was the subject of at least three novelizations, the best known being Frank Norris’ The Octopus.

For racial strife, we could cite Edna Ferber’s Giant. The scene in which patrician rancher “Bick” Benedict (grandfather of a mixed-race child) confronts a racist café owner was an especially telling incident in the 1956 film version. The primary example might be Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona (a book I have not read, mind you) published in 1884. The book combines the mutual hatred of Mexicans and Americans with cruel prejudice toward Native Americans. And then a special kind of vindictiveness is reserved for the half-breeds. Maybe not exactly Gloria Anzaldua’s story, but not all that different, either—and a full century earlier!

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is, of course, best known example in this genre. It was based fairly directly on reporting that Steinbeck did in the Federally-supported “Weed Patch” camp near Arvin, CA. (We’ve blogged about this before.) After taking a turn through Oklahoma for background, Steinbeck converted straight-up reportage into the story of the Joad family’s eviction, migration to California, exploitation by large growers and eventual dissolution. But you knew that.

I have many questions. To start with, what happened to this form? It’s nothing like today’s novelists would write, and that’s true whether we’re talking Margaret Atwood or John Grisham. Sure, we have Barbara Kingsolver, but Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was non-fiction. It’s not as if the stories have gone away, but in our time they are much more likely to be recounted simply as a factual exposé.

Perhaps we should regard that as progress. My other questions address the form itself: What made these novels, aside from the fact that names were changed. In some cases (like Steinbeck) the characters are composite, pulled together from the life-events of several individuals he met during his reporting. More generally, I’d speculate that the novel form was just a way to get people to read the damn things, in the first place. I know that I have a lot of trouble just convincing anyone to read this puny little blog! Maybe ethics needs a good story. I guess the authors of The Bible had that one figured out.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University

Oedipus the Scientist

March 6, 2016

We’ve been doing “ways of knowing” in my class at Michigan State, and I’ve been resisting the temptation to drag my undergraduates through a tangent on Sophocles. Blog readers are not so lucky. You’ll recall Sophocles’ play about King Oedipus from your freshman class on world literature. The plot gets rolling because Creon, his brother-in-law and some-time rival is back from Delphi with the news that Thebes suffers because the murderer of former King Laius remains unidentified and unpunished. In true macho fashion, Oedipus immediately sets out to discover the facts of the matter, promising swift action upon learning who the culprit is.

The events of the play all pivot from this point, as a series of witnesses are called before Oedipus to give testimony that will allow him to gain knowledge about this crucial unknown fact. I wonder if anyone who read Sophocles’ play or saw it performed was really in suspense about the final outcome. Most of us know that Oedipus himself is the culprit, that in fact Laius was his natural father and that he has married his own mother Jocasta and fathered children with her in the course of assuming the throne of Thebes. I don’t actually think that discovering all these gory details is actually what the play was about. Even Sophocles original audiences would have known the outline of this story from an earlier cycle of plays by Aeschylus.

Sigmund Freud drew a well-known set of psycho-sexual inferences from Oedipus the King, but in accord with ways of knowing I’d like to point out that all of the witnesses called to give testimony to Oedipus in his quest for the truth are reluctant to do so. First Tiresias the prophet of Apollo, then Jocasta herself and finally the shepherd and former servant of Jocasta resist Oedipus’s prodding, each telling him that he and Thebes will be better off if Oedipus gives up his quest for this particular matter of fact. Much earlier Creon has told Oedipus that facts must be seen in light of the motivations that people have for seeking or stating them. Oedipus’s witnesses are compelled to speak a truth they know will serve no good purpose under pain of death.

What, you may reasonably ask, could all this have to do with food (food being the nominal topic of the Thornapple Blog, after all)? I’d like to suggest that we’ve structured our public policy and our scientific research around food from Oedipus’s perspective: a quest for facts of the matter that is divorced from larger and more fundamental commitments to our own good, and that of those around us. It may not be as profound or tragic as Oedipus’s forbidden knowledge, but is it really helpful to ascertain and enforce an objective standard for the allowable amount of rat feces in our oatmeal? Mightn’t it have been more sociable to rest content with a warranted belief that actors along the cereal supply chain are doing all that they can to keep the Avena sativa and the genus Rattus separate from one another?

An oedipal type of knowing invites a rather uncaring and unbonded form of relationship building. To wit, why not blend an especially clean batch of oats with one that exceeds the allowable ratio of contamination so that the new batch is below the threshold? If there’s no evidence that GMOs, high fructose corn sweeteners or preservatives will harm you, why worry about whether people want them in their food? If the EPA standard for lead in drinking water gives you a year to fix the problem, why do anything now? All of these practices are consistent with the fact of the matter, aren’t they?

Oedipus was a little bit too confident that knowing who killed Laius would put him in a position to fix things in Thebes, and those of us in academe may share an overweening faith in a similar kind of facticity. In fact, we’ve set up all of our incentive structures to filter out our loyalties to other human beings (not to mention other species). Perhaps Tiresias and Jocasta were right to insist that those who search for facts would sometimes be wise to temper their quest and look to that which achieves a larger good.

Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University